My Dad, Forever a Stranger

For 16 years I had no relationship with my father, a devoted Scientologist. When he died, I realized just how little I knew about him — and he about me.

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Anastasia and her dad, c. 1981. (Courtesy of Anastasia Selby)

I reconnected with my dad on Facebook in February 2009.

Before that, the last time I’d seen him was when I was 12, and had run away from home. The shelter where I was staying had found him, matching our last names, and he had picked me up and taken me to the pool house where my mom and I were living. There were no bedrooms in this pool house, just a simple office partition. And there was no heat, just a propane fireplace.

I’d dreamed of my father coming to save me and relished the few days we spent together before my mom came back from her vacation. I begged my dad to let me live with him, but he’d said, “I live in a motel, that’s no place for a kid.”

My mom had married my father when she was just 18. He was two decades older, and a member of the Church of Scientology. My mom joined the church and its religious order, the Sea Organization — or Sea Org — before leaving Los Angeles to return to Washington State.

When I was born, both of my parents were in the Sea Org. Their schedules were grueling and I rarely saw either of them. I was kept in a Scientology-run daycare, where my mom told me she would sometimes find me with a full diaper and an empty stomach.  

My mom was angry at my father, and wanted me to be angry at him, too. She’d tell me about how he’d wasted their money, on expensive cologne, and about the time she’d left me alone with him and I’d ended up in the hospital with stitches.

But I always wanted to believe my father was good. When he moved to Washington State, he’d promised to take me every Sunday — but he rarely showed up. On the rare occasions when he came to pick me up, we’d go to the swap meet or he’d introduce me to his latest girlfriend. You’re getting chubby, he’d tell me, and he would police my food intake.

When my mom was feeling generous, she’d tell me the story about my father’s father, who had left him when he was young. When my father was in his thirties, his father called him from his deathbed and begged his forgiveness. But my father wouldn’t see him; he wouldn’t forgive.

Whenever my dad failed to show I would think about his father and wonder how history can so easily repeat itself.

“I don’t know how you turned out so well,” my father had told me while eating his slice of pizza, when we met for the first time in 16 years. Now he looked more like a grandfather — his hair peppery white.


Anastasia’s dad was a longtime devoted Scientologist. (123RF)

Two months after that meeting, my mom would be dead. Suicide. When I told me father, he sent me a short, rather detached, email: “Your mom and I shared some good times.” He didn’t ask how I was doing.

My father and I exchanged emails until he found out that I’d visited California, where he was living at the time. I hadn’t told him about it because I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t trust him. He was still a Scientologist. An although he was no longer working for the church, he often tried to convince me to go through Scientology’s brand of religious counseling, called auditing.

He was erratic in his communications, in one email apologizing about my childhood, and in the next blaming me for holding it against him. He sent me an email saying that he shouldn’t have to beg for my forgiveness, and telling me never to contact him again.

Less than two years ago, only five months after that email, I received a call from a hospice worker. My father was dying of leukemia. Before I could book a flight to be with him, he was dead. His roommate sent me a small box of his things; several watches, Navy discharge papers, a social security card and birth certificate. There was nothing of real value and nothing that he’d cherished.

There would be no resolution or happy ending. No mutual understanding. My father was dead. He’d never told me who he was, and he seemed never to have really wondered who I was either.

Anastasia Selby is an ex-firefighter and incoming MFA student at Syracuse University. She is currently working on a novel.

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